Phil Maddox’s pager went off at about 11:00 pm and less than three minutes later he was on the road, dry-suit clad with scuba equipment in the truck, hurtling down the highway.
The page said, “Vehicle overturned in the creek.” Those words launched him from sleep to immediate action. With no traffic he made good time. He saw the incident scene; the road before the bridge was filled with the lights from a dozen emergency response vehicles. The air ambulance landed rotor blades cutting the night into hard-edged red, white, and black fragments.
Phil parked behind the State trooper’s cruiser. Getting out he slung the air tank over his shoulder. The trooper motioned him through the cones, saying, “Vehicle went over the guard rail. Flipped right into the creek. One victim, but it’s a recovery, not a rescue.”
Phil looked over the bridge into the five-foot deep creek. The victim could be seen, pinned beneath the jeep. Only part of his head was visible, trapped between the rocky bank and the smashed rear fender. Phil dropped his tank and went down the bank. He wouldn’t be diving, but as the only person with water gear on he would help extricate the victim.
As he climbed down the Fire Captain noticed him. “Glad you’re here. Now we won’t have to get wet.”
“Always happy to help.”
“Well you know what we need, I’ll let you get to it.”
The steel cable from the tow truck came down and Phil fought the current attaching it to the vehicle’s frame. He held onto the victim’s body so the current wouldn’t pull it away. Through his thin glove Phil could feel the man’s wedding band. Afterwards he searched the creek to ensure no one else had been in the vehicle. It took only a few minutes and then everyone was reloading the trucks and returning to service. Phil watched them leave and headed home as well.
Driving back he could still feel the hard metal of the wedding ring against his palm. Once home he cleaned the mud from his dry suit. Performing all the other little tasks required to get his equipment back into service kept his mind on the narrow focus. If he was lost in details he could forget about the empty big picture. His wife--no, correct that; his ex-wife, wasn’t in it anymore.
She had never understood why he answered the pager, or how expensive answering it could be. She hadn’t even looked up when he had come back from that little backyard pond, hadn’t even asked if he was OK. He had been alone with images of that drowned little girl. A little girl the same age as his daughter; her parents had looked on hopeful and hopeless, shattered beyond any immediate feelings, beyond words to express.
His wife had upbraided him mercilessly for tracking water over her clean carpets. He’d called the lawyer the next day. It was divorce, suicide, or quit diving. As awful as diving was, he knew that not diving would be worse.
His new house felt no emptier than the one he’d lived in with his wife. It even had something the other place never did: hope. That made it a home.
As a housewarming present he’d bought himself a new computer. Knowing that sleep would not find him anytime soon, he turned on the machine and logged onto the ‘net. The familiar synthetic voice welcomed him and announced that he had mail. He quickly deleted the porn web site ads and the get-rich-quick schemes. He was left with a dozen messages mostly from his mail lists, the most active of which was composed of fellow rescue and recovery divers. He read through the messages. There were a couple announcing training classes and the usual few Monday morning quarterbackings of someone else's incident. Off the list there was a message with a screen name that he didn’t recognize: Gailwriter. Intrigued, or sleep deprived, he opened and read it.
I write horror novels. I am researching a character for a story. He is a rescue diver who becomes involved in a supernatural mystery. I read your profile and was hoping you could help me make my character more believable. I have a few questions, but any help that you could provide would be most welcome.
If it would not be too much trouble could you please answer a few questions for me? How does a diver prepare himself for a dive? What kinds of equipment do rescue divers use? Is it the same that a recreational diver would use? How is rescue diving different from recreational diving? Why do rescue divers have a better chance of locating victims than recreational divers? How do you feel about diving?
Hopefully I am not intruding, and am not bothering you. Thank you for your time.
Phil read the letter twice. He had half a mind to ignore it, or send a purely technical response. Instead he did something he might not have had he been more awake. He cut and pasted an entry from his journal into e-mail.
This is an entry from my journal. I hope this answers some of your questions.
From Tones to Debrief
Is what you did enough? If she can hold her father’s finger with her tiny hand will that be enough? Will what you did keep some love in this world?
“Drowning,” says the dispatcher and you are moving already, throwing a wet suit on, and gear into the truck. Even before the dispatcher has finished. A child has drowned in the next subdivision.
You must drive faster.
You are the only diver within ten minutes, the Platinum Ten, of the victim. It is likely that you will be the first on the scene. This could be your time to really do something special, to really shine. In a drowning quick rescue can make all the difference. The day is warm, but the nights have been cold, so the water should still have been cold. A cold-water-near-drowning: eighteen-month old victim. The chances are good and for once the right person, with the right training may be in the right place at the right time.
You must drive faster.
You get stopped at a red light by traffic. You can hear the fire engines coming, but they don’t have divers or equipment. You have to get there and find the child before the paramedics can do anything.
Gas, Gas and more Gas.
You brake hard to make the turn into the subdivision and squeal to a stop, pulling on tank and mask as you go. Hands from bystanders help you. As the first truck pulls up you throw one of the firefighters the end of your search line and walk into the cold pond. The last seen point was very good and you hit the limp form of the little girl on the first lane, swimming right into her. She is so small, weightless in your arms, as you surface and run through the water towards shore. The medics wade out to meet you and pull the girl from your arms. As they take her away to work on her your tank suddenly feel so heavy. All you can do is sit and shake on the side of the pond. Momentarily forgotten, you watch the medics work the girl. After a few minutes one of the firefighters helps you up. You put your gear away. Now you are just one more person on the scene, with no special skills. You help direct traffic and move vehicles out of the way.
Finally the ambulance is rolling fast. Someone else is thinking ‘I must go faster.’ The Captain is driving so all the medics can work in the back. You help clear the way so that Engine Company Three, or Threes for short, can turn around and go to the hospital to pick up their Captain. It must have been hours since you got there, but looking at the watch it’s a lot less than twenty minutes. It can’t be, but all that effort, by almost a dozen emergency responders has taken less then twenty minutes. Unbelievable.
Driving home you think about the baby, you think about your baby. She’s the same age, and just as vulnerable. Just as loved, just as loving. Will this little girl make it? The water was cold, the child very young. These are both in her favor. Even more so is the emergency care she got. You know that from the time that Threes got on the scene the child got the very best care anyone could have. You pray these things are enough.
Back home you listen to the radio, waiting for Threes to go back into service. When they do you will call the station to see how the child is. You hear them go in service, but almost immediately they are called back to the hospital to set up landing zone for the helicopter that will fly the little girl out. You take this as a good sign; she must still be alive. You look at your watch, almost two and a half hours since the call came out. A very long time. You wonder at what went on in the ER.
As soon as they get back to the station you call them. The girl didn’t make it. They were flying her out to have her organs donated for transplants. In your home you have your thoughts, the love of a lost child and the love of the child sleeping in the room next to yours. Sometimes you find it far too easy to put yourself in the place of the victims, or the family of the victim. You asked if a Critical Incident Debrief would be held. It’s scheduled for Monday evening. You have made plans to be there.
The Critical Incident Stress Management Debrief is a new thing in the fire service. You have never been to one before, and don’t really know what to expect. Everyone who was involved: Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement are invited. A team of trained mental health and peer review people are there to start your healing process, so that you can do your job. The first thing you learn is that the baby isn’t dead. She was flown out to a special ICU and has recently been taken off her respirator. Things still don’t look good, she may never recover, her brain might still die, but there is now a slim hope that maybe things will get better. With such a young child sometimes miracles do occur. The roller coaster ride hasn’t ended yet.
The CISMD starts off with everyone describing what they did at the incident. You are proud of the job you did, but know it was luck that put you that. You tell your story. The Paramedics and Firefighter EMTs say what they did. They did a lot. They say they just hoped that this would be one that they could have a shot at. They knew about cold water and little babies, and that if the child had any vitals they might be able to do something good. You can tell how proud they were that they gave it everything they had. For eighteen minutes they were as hard and as sharp as machines and everything went better than they hoped.
Everyone also gets a chance to talk about how they feel, the “little pictures”, or “snippets of video” they have from this incident. You talk about how the lake was bright blue when you got there with ripple from the father trying to rescue his daughter. Mark, the Captain of Engine Company Three, tells about meeting the eyes of the mother and then going to her. The Medic supervisor says she doesn’t see children at incidents as small people with grieving parents, but as CPR mannequins, inanimate plastic to be worked on. This is her defense, but that defense comes apart when she mentions that the child had, “pretty eye lashes, and a cute little face”. She is close to tears. For you this is the most vivid thing about the debrief, how a hardened Medic Supervisor let her defenses down when she was taken back to that day.
You learn that the little girl died the next weekend. Her obit ran on Sunday. Sunday had been a beautiful sunny; the kind of day a little girl should have been outside watching the early spring flowers bloom and blow in the breeze. Not a day for a little baby to be dead, it was far too beautiful for that, wasn’t it? You remember the two rules of Rescue Diving:
Rule 1 People die.
Rule 2 Divers can’t change Rule 1.
Phil hit the “send” button.
After a few minutes of reading the rest of his mail he had second thought. When he attempted to unsend the letter he was greeted with the following message.
“You may not unsend messages once they have been read.”
Before he could wonder why he had sent the damned thing in the first place, or what this Gail person made of it, his computer chimed.
“You have an instant message from Gailwriter. Will you accept?”
Interested to find out how big a fool he had made of himself, he clicked on Yes.
Gailwriter Hello. Thank you for the e-mail, it was very powerful. And very sad.
DiverPM What we do is often sad.
Gailwriter Then why do you do it?
DiverPM If it was your child wouldn’t you want someone to find her?
There was a long pause.
DiverPM That is why we do it.
Gailwriter You don’t sound like you enjoy it.
DiverPM I don’t. It’s not something I do because I want to. Its something I do because I have to.
Gailwriter I never knew that emergency service people felt like that.
DiverPM Some of us do. It doesn’t affect everyone the same way.
He found himself writing very frankly to this person. She was a complete stranger, totally faceless and unknown. Maybe that was why it was so easy for him to open up. She was unreal, safe somehow. They chatted for what seemed like only a few minutes, but when he looked at the clock two hours had passed. The alarm would be very unforgiving in four hours. He made his good-byes and got ready to sign off.
Gailwriter Thank you, you’ve given me a lot to think about for my character.
DiverPM You're welcome.
Gailwriter Do you always journal in second person?
DiverPM I wrote it when I was married. I was trying to show my wife how I felt. It didn’t work.
Gailwriter I don’t think you write in second person just to bring the reader closer. I think you do it to distance yourself from the pain.
Phil wasn’t sure what to say, which in his mind was a good argument that Gail was correct. He told her so.
Gailwriter I’m sorry, it was none of my business. Please forgive me.
Phil thought about this as well. On one level he wasn’t entirely comfortable with someone being so forward with her observations, without having even met him. He was, however, intrigued by someone who, from one journal entry, might be insightful enough to guess something he had kept hidden from himself. Whoever this Gail person was, she was safe, distant, and insulated from him by the namelessness of the Net.
DiverPM That’s OK, so much for me being mysterious.
Gailwriter I guess you will have to leave that to me. I know it must be late for you. I’d like to chat with you again sometime.
DiverPM I’d like that too.
In the days that followed Gail became a regular visitor on his computer. Quickly he began to look forward to seeing her screen name appear on his buddy list window. He sent her a few more journal entries and she had high praise for them. In return she sent him some character sketches of her protagonist, although she was still quite mysterious about what would befall him in her story.
Gailwriter I wrote this and want you to read it, does it ring true?
DiverPM Sure, send it, I'll take a look.
Gailwriter Be gentle <grin>
It's the ones he couldn't help that stayed with him. The ones that were swept away or simply never found. Carter remembered one of his first evidence classes. The instructor was a long service Boston cop who had introduced his students to one of the truths of emergency: the truth of the “small grave”. The retired detective's small grave was from his rookie year. He was hours late in saving the tiny four-year old from death by abuse and neglect, or four years late. He had taken out his frustrations on the drunken and uncaring father. Violent action was only a short-term tonic. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, a fresh wreath graces the cheap gravestone in its horrible urban cemetery; that is his lifelong treatment.
Carter's own “small grave” lies empty. Rape had not been enough for her assailants. They had used the river to hide their crime, and to take her life and everything it could have been. In fifteen years the current had never surrendered her; closure
denied. It had not been Carter's case to work; it had been his case to live. He was still in high school, not an evidence recovery diver, just the victim’s best friend and lover. If he had ceased to be a child at any given moment, it was when he fell to his knees before her empty coffin. They had met as lifeguards. Water had always been their playground, the thing that had brought them together. It was water that had taken her away. For years he couldn't swim. The water called, but he refused to answer. Finally he could not resist and went back to swimming and learned diving. The water, once so sweet and secure, once a place of safety, was now forever a place of horror. His short-term tonic had been to turn his back on the water; his lifelong treatment diving.
Phil read the blue letters on his screen once over. Then his eyes focused on a dark multi-span bridge and he replayed, as he had countless times before, the images of two sisters, repeatedly raped and then pushed from the span into the cold black waters below. The Mississippi had never surrendered one of them. The lost promise of two young lives was marked with a matching pair of stones, one of which marked an even greater emptiness; as Gail had written, "closure denied."
A small tone chimed. The dark images crumbled and were replaced with the neutral beige casing of his computer and the luminous pearly gray of the screen. Several lines of text, queries from Gail, marched across his monitor.
“Are you all right?” asked the latest one. At first he wasn’t sure how to answer that. Suddenly he was very angry. Obviously someone he knew was jobbing him. He didn’t share much. Few people could handle, even second hand, the emotions, images, and events he dove towards.
DiverPM Gail who are you?
Gailwriter What do you mean?
DiverPM Don’t bullshit me. You couldn’t have written that without knowing me. Which of my friends are you?
Gailwriter Phil, we’ve never met. I only know you from what you have shown me.
DiverPM I REALLY don’t appreciate this. I hope that you are having a great time doing this.
Gailwriter Phil, I swear to you that we’ve never met. If you don’t get off this we probably won’t.
DiverPM I haven’t told many people about my empty grave. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out who you are. How else could you have known?
Gailwriter You’re an idiot. I’ve read your journal entries and our chats. Damn it, don’t you think I’m smart enough to figure you out, at least a little?
He thought back to her comments about that first journal entry he had sent her. She had seen in his style something he hadn’t noticed, something that was suddenly so correct and obvious once she had pointed it out: the distance he was trying to put between himself and the traumas of his diving. None of the other people, his wife before the divorce, a couple of friends, even his counselor, who had read it had been perceptive enough to see. Gail was different and he realized that his sudden burst of anger was as much from fear as anything else. He wasn’t certain if he could afford to let someone into his life that could read him so easily. He was even less sure if he could let someone like that out of his life. For the second time that evening, the chiming of his computer brought him back to the present.
Gailwriter I’m sorry.
DiverPM No Gail, I should apologize. I was wrong.
Gailwriter I should have asked you before I wrote that. I did some research into your area and found several cases where the bodies were never recovered. I should have understood you well enough to know how much that would distress you. I should have guessed that you had worked at least one of them. I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t being a friend. I used you and I hurt you when I did it. You have a visceral ability to see things. I’m sorry for the images I must have helped conjure in your mind.
DiverPM You didn’t do it on purpose. It’s OK. I didn’t work the case, and luckily I wasn’t as close to the victims as your character was. They were girls I went to college with.
Gailwriter Did you know them well? Friends?
DiverPM No. They were good friends of good friends. I only knew them in passing.
Gailwriter That’s worse for you isn’t it?
Phil had to think about this as well; was it worse to miss what you had known, or to wonder over what you might have missed? Again he found himself without an answer. It seemed that Gail was increasingly able to generate that response in him.
DiverPM How do you do that?
Gailwriter Do what?
DiverPM Ask questions I can’t answer?
Gailwriter Just a God-given-gift. <grin>
DiverPM Thanks for being here; I need a friend right now.
Gailwriter I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
They bantered for some time that evening. Gail was sharp witted, kind and cared about him in a way he had thought he would never find. Somewhere in this he realized he was falling in love with her. Somehow this did not scare him as much as it should have.
One night while he was waiting for her to get on-line he loitered in the local news headlines area. As usual it was a mistake. The lead story was about a missing thirteen-year-old girl. He had a very bad feeling about it, like flies crawling across his soul. He knew the world could be a very bad place, filled with very bad people. Before he could dwell upon the story he heard the door-opening sound that announced Gail’s arrival.
They chatted, but she seemed preoccupied. Her responses were slow and she lacked her usual sharp wit. He asked if she was busy, they could always chat later.
Gailwriter No, there has been something I’ve been thinking about telling you. But I’ve been afraid.
Gailwriter Because if you find this out about me you won’t like me anymore.
DiverPM I can’t think of anything that would make me feel that way about you.
Gailwriter If I tell you you’ll hate me, I know you will.
DiverPM I doubt that.
Gailwriter Thirteen years ago I did a very bad thing. It was the worst thing a person could do.
Phil was concerned now. What if she had killed someone while driving drunk? What if she had taken an innocent life? Could he forgive her for that? He didn’t know.
Gailwriter I was driving my car one afternoon. I was a senior in high school. It was down along the lakes north of New Orleans.
Gailwriter My car had a flat tire.
Gailwriter When I was trying to figure out how to fix it a van with some boys I went to school with pulled up.
Phil had a very good idea where this was now headed. He couldn’t stop Gail. He put his hands on the sides of the monitor. There was nothing he could do but watch the story unfold in clear blue 12 point Helvetica font.
Gailwriter They gave me a lift in their van.
Gailwriter They beat me, gang raped me and left me for dead by the side of the road.
The flurry of instant messages stopped. Phil didn’t know if Gail was done and didn’t want to interrupt her.
Gailwriter You hate me don’t you?
DiverPM How could I hate you for what other people did to you?
Gailwriter It was my fault. I did it.
DiverPM How could that have been your fault?
Gailwriter It was.
Gailwriter I was a bad person, I deserved it.
DiverPM What could you have done that you didn’t?
DiverPM Then why was it your fault?
Gailwriter I must have done something to deserve it. I understand that you can’t be my friend anymore
DiverPM I’ll always be your friend
Gailwriter WHAT? How could you care about me, someone who let that happen?
DiverPM How could I let something like that keep me from caring about you?
Gailwriter You don’t know me.
DiverPM If you were drowning I would go down with you if I could not save you.
It was a long while before the next message.
Gailwriter Do you really mean that?
And he knew that, even though it was against all the training he had ever gotten, it was true.
They continued chatting for a long time. Between them they had shared their darkest secrets. It certainly wasn’t what he had been looking for. Was it what he needed?
After having missed so much sleep Phil had had been a long day. The ringing of the phone at eight the next evening found him only half-awake, in that hazy space between bleary wakefulness and restless sleep.
“Phil, we need you to go in tomorrow.” It was Bennie, the dive team dispatcher. Bennie’s voice was old. A diver turned to dispatching when his body or his soul couldn’t take the water and its secrets anymore. In Bennie’s case both were long since broken.
“What have you got?” Phil asked.
Bennie hesitated for a moment. “Sheriff’s department needs the lake in Webster Park searched.”
With a sick certainty Phil knew what the call would be. “It’s that missing girl, isn’t it?”
“When do you want me there?”
“OK, have the cops bring the coffee and donuts, and I’ll bring everything else.”
“See ya tomorrow.”
Gail wasn’t on line that evening, so he left her an e-mail.
With coffee cup in hand Phil listened to the in brief. Search dogs had lead police to the lake, but dogs and police officers don’t dive. It was the team’s turn now. The missing girl was a tiny 14 year old. Her photo showed a smiling redhead in a soccer uniform. Phil passed it along without looking. He concentrated on the description of the dogs’ activity along the lakeshore. Apparently the hounds had shown substantial interest in a section of the bike path hard along the shore. That would be where the divers would start.
Phil was first diver in and started his initial sweep at the far end of the search area. He would work from the edge, where they believed there was less chance of finding anything, towards the center or the high probability area. It was a standard technique. Phil’s first semicircular sweeps, arcs determined by the yellow searchline stretched between he and the tender, were clean. He found nothing but the usual pond bottom junk. The water was murky, he was ‘diving by Braille’, using his hands like a blind man.
Touch was the first sensation that told him he was in the crime scene. His gloved right hand brushed something that moved slightly. He hovered, letting the slit settle back down. He turned his headband light on and slowly floated forward until he was inches from object. In the light it was pale. He immediately recognized it as a disarticulated hand. Dropping back within the cocoon of his training, closing out his emotions completely, he placed a marker buoy. Gently he moved on trying to define the perimeter of the scene. It was very large. After the first orbit he pulled out the underwater camera and shot the entire roll. He then carefully bagged all the evidence, all the pieces, the separate articles of clothing, the disarticulate remains, the knife. He maintained precise positive control as he moved from near utter blackness to the brighter surface. Evidence techs were waiting on shore.
When he was finally done, certain he had collected every scrap of flesh and cloth and bone from the oozing black mud of the lake he had been lucky to pull his face mask off before vomiting. He convulsed on his hands and knees on the edge of the lake until he was totally empty.
This was it, thought Phil. This better end soon. He sat on the edge of the big empty bed, dripping wet and shivering. He had stayed in the shower until the total absence of hot water forced him out. His skin was raw from scrubbing, and still he didn’t feel clean. Would he ever again? After what he had discovered today could he ever dive again? He couldn’t even begin to understand how another human being could so cruelly use a child. Thank God he had been wearing gloves. He prayed that this was the last time he would ever dive.
Somewhere a phone was ringing. It was distant and meaningless. Much closer Phil heard an alien voice, which he recognized as his own answering, “Hello”
“Honey, it’s OK. I know it hurts but it’s OK.” The voice was feminine, with a sweet southern accent. Phil did not recognize it. He was still sitting with the phone cradled against his ear, speechless.
“Phil, it’s Gail.”
He began to sob immediately. Deep wracking gasps. In his ear were words of comfort. He had prayed that someday someone would be with him to say these things when he most needed them. Today was that day, and Gail was that person. It didn’t matter that she was a voice on the other end of the phone. It only mattered that she said the words he needed to hear.
“Gail I don’t think I can do this anymore, I just can’t.”
“You did a great job today, didn’t you?”
“God, I hope so.”
Her voice was soothing. “The family had to know.”
That just made him hurt worse. “The truth is so horrible.”
“Not knowing would be even worse.”
“How can you be sure?” he asked, “How can you know that?”
“It’s not the things we know, it’s the things we imagine.”
Phil thought about this for a moment. “I can’t imagine anything worse than this.”
Gail sighed, “That’s because you’re a good person. You saved her family from having to wonder where their little girl is. As bad as things are, at least they can begin moving on. If you hadn’t found her, that couldn’t happen.”
“I just bring awful news, horrible news.”
“The man that killed that little girl will kill again. You are all that is going to catch him. You find evidence. If you don’t go down, who will? If you don’t go down how many other little girls and their families will suffer? You know that as bad as you feel now, you would feel worse to hear about those killings.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“You and the evidence you recovered will catch and convict him.”
“I pray you’re right.”
“I’m sure.” She paused. “Phil I love you.”
It was words he hadn’t expected to hear. His response was also something he didn’t expect. “I love you too.”
“I promise that when all this is over we’ll meet.”
“This might never end.”
“You’ll just have to catch him quickly, won’t you?”
“How did I find you?”
“You didn’t, I heard your call. You were empty. I need you, but it was what you needed that brought us together. No one that does what you do should be so alone. Now go get some sleep. You aren’t any good to anyone exhausted.”
He hung up the phone. He finally felt clean. Sleep closed in on him.
“This bastard is on a very short cycle,” said the detective. The briefing room was crowded. FBI profilers and agents, police, and divers filled the available seats or stood, arms crossed against their chests, along the back wall. They had three girls go missing in four weeks. Two underwater crime scenes, one still to be found. There was a sick certainty that the third girl would turn up like the others. Even as the evidence collection teams were being brought up to speed on the latest potential victim, dogs and handlers were combing lakesides across the county. Phil stood in the back of the room, thoughts black and cold. He hadn’t been on the second crime scene. It had been in the city and City Fire’s divers had done the work. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He knew that there would be tiny dismembered body after body if they didn’t catch a break soon. This guy was good; he was clean and focused. It would be hard to catch him. They had to pray he would make a mistake. Phil prayed even harder that they would catch that mistake. It looked like this time, divers would make or break the case. Unfortunately, for the killer to make a mistake more girls had to die.
The briefing lasted for over two hours. Everything the profilers could dream up was presented. This stuff was interesting, but was it useful? Phil had a feeling that the only thing that would matter was what they found on the bottom. Profilers don’t dive. It was on the bottom that they’d find this guy’s mistake.
Phil felt shredded by the time he unlocked his pickup to head home. His cloth seat felt hot through his jeans. The spring sunshine was quick to heat up his truck, but slow to warm the local lakes and ponds. It was still drysuit weather. He replayed search patterns and techniques in his head as he drove. On the way he stopped and grabbed something to eat. By the time he parked in the driveway, he couldn’t recall where he had stopped or what he had eaten.
After he entered the dark coolness of his home, his first impulse was to check his dive equipment. When the next call came, he wanted to be on dive station as soon as possible. Everything was ready. The small items: fins, dive knife, booties, gloves, and lights were in a big plastic tub; the drysuit was hanging, quickly available for rapid donning. The tank including the attached buoyancy compensator and integrated weight system stood next to the door. He could be out the door in less then two minutes.
The service checks on his back up gear came first. Satisfied that it was all functioning properly and available for immediate use he took his front line gear out of service and worked that over as well.
By the time he had finished checking his gear it was very late. He was completely exhausted. Surprisingly, sleep found him quickly. Not surprisingly, so did his nightmares.
He woke no less exhausted than when he turned off the lights. The next few days passed in a blur. He snarled at his coworkers. This case was killing his day job. He’d be lucky if anyone at work talked to him after this was over. For a volunteer even the most patient and supportive bosses have limits. This investigation would be almost certain to find them.
The pager was a like a talisman. He touched it often, reassuring himself it was still on his belt. When a call back number turned out to be from someone who misdialed, he exploded in anger. Gail was all that kept him sane. He found her to be more and more his lifeline. She absolved him of his sins of anger when they chatted that evening.
They finally found the third crime scene a week later. Their boy had been kind enough to call the local paper and drop some hints. He so loved for people to admire his handiwork.
The handiwork was the same. Phil’s search pattern had hit the crime scene nearly in the center this time. The water was less turbid. Visibility was nearly three feet. Phil got a good view of the scene, something he didn’t get from the first one. It was almost like modern art. Maybe that was the whole point. The victim lay strewn across the muddy bottom. First the clothes, a pretty yellow sundress, had been weighted and dropped in. Next came the disarticulated body. Perhaps the killer had carefully waded in to place the head; it was face up, and the eyes open. The knife was the last thing thrown it, it had come to rest across the small child-sized forearm. A new video camera recorded the crime-scene. The water was clear enough to get some good footage. Phil drained his air tank and switched up. Dennis, one of the team’s other divers got the task of plotting each individual part. There were two divers at the scene. Like Phil Dennis had been around for a long time. Dennis’ bubble trail marked his efficient path across the crime scene. Phil watched it for several minutes as he rested. The exhausted tank was switched for a new one. As soon as the plotting was done Phil would go back down and recover the physical remains and the rest of the evidence. He focused on his pre-dive equipment checks. When those were finished he replayed technique in his head. It was just like training. It wasn’t a person down there. It was just like training. He could hear Dennis being violently sick as he ended his dive.
Phil slipped into the pond. Carefully he finished the scene. He bagged the dismembered hands and feet in zip-locks. Everything went in a black mess evidence bag. Usually body bags take the rough shape of a person. The bag he brought up did not. Again he handed everything over to the evidence techs. Spring sunshine was bright on his blue and orange dry suit as he huddled half in and half out of the water. It was a long time before he let himself be helped out of the pond. This time he didn’t vomited. He was very proud.
As he sat on the tailgate of his pickup truck Phil wondered how many children had to die for this to end. How good was this killer? Would he ever make a mistake? If he didn’t screw up, the investigators could never catch him. And for him to screw up he had to keep killing. Phil knew there was no way he could win this contest. It was a long time before he drove home.
Again he outlasted the hot water. As he lay in the darkness, the phone started to ring. He just looked at it until it stopped. He knew what she would say. Tonight he couldn’t stand to listen. Tonight he didn’t want to be loved, or cared for, or special to anyone. He wanted to be somebody else. He couldn’t win. Bitterness filled him and spilled out across his whole world. Sleep found him while he was angry and hating.
The spring days passed slowly. Phil went on-line infrequently, and then only to delete his messages. He never responded to any chats. Next to the disconnected answering machine the phone would jangle to life, only to be ignored. The only message that mattered to Phil would come by pager. It was all he lived for. His coworkers avoided him, his supervisor feared him. The other members of the investigation were no better off than he was; meetings were conducted in monosyllabic drones until someone would snap and vent his anger explosively.
Two more girls disappeared. Phil pushed himself on a false site and pulled his right shoulder badly. That kept him out of the water for crime-scene number four. He had been the on-scene dive supervisor, bossing operations in a clipped, humorlessly professional manner.
Three hours after clearing the crime scene he sat in front of his computer. The letter of resignation was typed, proofread and spell checked, twice over. He saved it as a file to email the team commander, the secretary, and the detective in charge of the investigation. He cited poor results, due to his own poor judgment and obvious lack of skill, as the reason he was quitting. He went on-line to mail it. The killer was flawless, made of ice and printed circuits, but Phil was still human. There was a letter from Gail and he could not resist opening it. He was certain that the anger she had for being ignored these last days would fill his cup of gall to overflowing. He was also certain he deserved every last bitter sip.
I’m not sure why you haven’t chatted with me or answered my e-mail. I think I know, though. You can run away from me, but you can’t run away from who you are and the gifts you have. Please, Phil, people need you. I need you, too, but that doesn’t seem important right now. You are a diver, a gifted craftsman in a demanding vocation. These girls and their families need you, the Prosecuting Attorney needs you, and the cops and the
other divers need you. Mostly the family of the next victim needs you. Don’t betray yourself. If you give up now you will regret it for the rest of your life. Every time this monster kills another girl you will hate yourself more. You know it.
Phil, I love you. I will no matter what you decide to do, and I will be waiting to hear from you whenever you can bring yourself to reopen a line of communication. That being said, I hope you stay in the fight. We need you.
Phil deleted his letter of resignation and went to sleep.
Another park pond. The grass sloped gently to the waters edge; clumps of trees shaded benches and picnic tables. It would have made a pleasant scene for an Impressionist painter. Victorians could have lounged on the green grass beneath the bright blue sky with its fluffy white clouds and nibbled daintily from wicker baskets.
Once again their boy had been here. Once again Phil was the lead diver. Dogs had hit on the part of the lake near an ornate cast iron bridge. Phil pulled rank as senior diver present. His second searchline crossed a large bundle. In his heart he knew they had the fifth victim.
This crime scene was different. Instead of the bottom strewn with carefully cleaned and dismembered parts this victim was whole and wrapped haphazardly in a piece of old carpeting. Phil signaled up to the surface by wired communications when he had found something. After carefully photographing and videotaping the crime scene, he and Dennis put the heavy bundle in a black mesh evidence-collecting bag and together they lifted it to the surface. The Medical Examiner’s van had been backed to the edge of the pond. The two divers carried the bundle to the open van, marching to the thudding cadence of news helicopter rotor blades. They robbed the vultures of their brutal video with the slam of double doors.
The interior of the van was close. Death was present. Phil, Dennis, and the ME, crowded around the mesh bag. Inside was the sodden bundle. They needed to get a look at what it contained and ensure all evidence was stabilized immediately. Phil unzipped the black body bag. His light blue nitrile gloves contrasted against the dark mesh. As they removed the bag, the carpet bundle was revealed. It was a section of old carpeting, obviously hastily slashed from a larger piece. At some remote point in time, a careless handyman had spattered pale yellow paint across the garish orange and green pattern. Phil could see the mirthless wolf smiles crossed the others’ faces. If they could find the rest of this carpet, they would have more than enough for forensics to match. If they could find the original carpet. And if this bundle had anything to do with their current case.
As they opened the carpet there was mingled relief and despair. It was the 15-year-old girl they had been searching for. Bruises and deep slashing wounds crisscrossed her face. From the briefing Phil knew that this victim was bigger and stronger than the others were. She had fought harder. Maybe that was what had finally caused their boy to make a mistake. He had gotten more than he had bargained for with this child.
The bright blue gloves of the techs stood out against the girl’s deathly pale skin. They presented her hands for photography before carefully slipping them into clear plastic baggies. There was skin beneath the girl’s nails. She hadn’t been in the water long, and it was still pretty chilly. There would be ample material for DNA testing. If they could get a suspect, they could get a conviction. The rest of the field investigation progressed quickly. Phil and his team had done their jobs well. They had brought up what was there and brought it up clean. Protocols had been followed and proper documentation completed.
The police decided to let the media do something positive for a change. They showed the carpet on the evening news. Maybe someone would recognize the ugly orange and green relic from the seventies and call in. Maybe someone would point a finger at their killer. Phil watched the press conference from his living room. He could do nothing but pray now.
Even divers have to take care of personal needs. Long hair is a pain underwater. Phil was having his hair trimmed at the mall when rumor flashes like a wild fire. An arrest has been made! Several people recognized the carpet from a house they had rented down on Riverside. The lead was a good one. Search warrants had been issued. The basement family room of the house had the hideous carpet. It was defaced with a missing section identical in shape and pattern to the one found in the lake. The tenant seemed surprised when he returned from work to face a house full of angry tactical officers. He surrendered without incident, asking for a lawyer. No lawyer could erase the splashes of blood in that basement. They had their boy.
Even in the recognition of a job well done Phil knew, though, that for the five dead girls it didn’t matter. There were flowers gone from the World’s garden and pulling up the weeds wouldn’t change that.
The computer made its strange little chirps and whines as it booted up. Phil felt the first thing he needed to do was apologize to Gail. He owed her that much. He would understand if she didn’t forgive him. He had thrown away everything he had ever wanted in a partner when he hadn’t answered her last letter. That was another death on the hands of the killer. Any love that Gail had felt for him was probably long gone.
Her screen name was up, and before Phil could send her a message a dialog box appeared on his screen.
“You have an instant message from Gailwriter. Will you accept?”
Phil clicked the Yes box immediately.
Gailwriter You made the wire service news.
DiverPM I’m sorry. I treated you very badly.
Gailwriter You did what you had to do. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more.
DiverPM Gail, no one has ever done as much for me. I was going to quit until I read your letter.
Gailwriter I’m glad you didn’t.
DiverPM I’m glad I didn’t.
Gailwriter Well I have a promise to keep.
Gailwriter I promised that we would meet.
DiverPM I wasn’t sure you still wanted to.
Gailwriter Yes! Sooner than you think we’ll be together. I’ll make all the arrangements and keep you informed.
DiverPM I guess I really need to clean the house now. <grin>
Phil’s pager went off around eleven the next day. Doing a dangerous and unpleasant job well has it’s own penalty. Other people will want your help. Such was the case when a commuter airliner plunged into the water north of New Orleans. Phil had just enough time to send Gail a message about leaving town before the team loaded up. Two days after the blackwaters had swallowed the aircraft Phil and his teammates found themselves five to fifteen feet deep in hell, gathering fragments of flesh and bone and aircraft that, thankfully, bore little resemblance to anything once living.
For five days it was dive after dive, hands always placed in fear of snakes, snapping turtles, or alligators. The next day the team would clean their gear and repack it. All that would be left after that was the drive home. Phil had pushed himself hard, finding forgetfulness, if not release, in a job well done. There would be no celebration. On a job like this it was just better to put things as far behind one as possible, as quickly as possible.
The hotel staff had been polite and helpful, but they too had kept their distance. No one wanted to be close to the deaths of one hundred twenty seven innocent people. No one except the media. The hotel and local authorities had done an excellent job of shielding the divers from that sort of attention.
That was why Phil was surprised when the phone rang and it was the front desk.
“Could you please come down and speak to some people?” The desk clerk sounded both desperate and embarrassed.
“Is it the press?”
“No. No, they aren’t reporters. It should only take a few minutes.” The clerk knew the divers needed their privacy, yet he could hear an imploring tone in her voice.
Wearing his faded team t-shirt and a pair of mesh pants over his trunks, Phil walked down to the lobby. He was surprised to be introduced to an older couple, well dressed and dignified. He could sense loss and anger in these people. He thought he knew who they were.
“Ma’am, sir, what can I help you with?”
“Sir, we were wondering if you could help us find our daughter?”
His guess had been correct. They were a victim’s family. Phil’s face froze solid. What could he tell them that they would want to hear? There was no hope of survivors and no mercy in remains to bury. The biggest piece they had found had been a mostly intact patella.
“Was she on the aircraft?”
“No she’s been missing for thirteen years.”
In an instant he knew what name Mr. and Mrs. Ritter would give for their daughter. Professionally Phil interviewed them about the potential dive site. He got a description and directions to the location. He asked the couple to bring anyone who had knowledge of the scene to the dive site in the morning. The team would be there.
Phil dove that next morning on the location of an oil slick that the Parish Sheriff had ignored thirteen years before. The local dive club had been persuaded to try their luck in the intervening time, but had come up empty. By putting the Ritters’ witnesses in the location they had observed the oil slick from, Phil hoped to establish a better Point Last Seen. The search began two hundred yards from where the local recreational divers had tried. On Phil’s fourth search lane his rope snagged a large object. It turned out to be a 1985 Trans Am, white in color. This was the same make, model, and year as Gail’s car. The license plates matched those of Gail’s missing vehicle as well. Phil turned his back as the Sheriff had popped the trunk. Not a single person who stood on the road that morning was surprised when human remains found. It would require dental records to positively identify them as Gail Ritter’s. But no doubters remained on the melting asphalt. Everyone knew.
Gail Ritter had come home.
Phil was silent most of the ride back north, speaking only in response to direct questions, or to ask for something to drink. He didn’t eat anything. He just wasn’t hungry.
When he got home, he stowed his equipment in boxes in the basement. He drained the tanks, unscrewed the valves, disassembled the gear and generally did what was needed to ensure that whoever owned it next would find it serviceable and trustworthy. Maybe he would sell it. Maybe he would donate it to the team. It didn’t really matter. He knew he would never dive with it again. He had thought so before, but now he knew that there was no one to pull him back from the brink. Diving had cost him his marriage, and now maybe his mind. He was done.
He remembered what he had told Gail with grim irony. “If you were drowning I would go down with you if I could not save you.” He had gone down, and there would be no surfacing from these black, cold waters.
He smiled as he sat in the darkness. He was happy, in an empty mindless way, until the phone rang.
He picked it up mechanically. The voice was sweet and southern and although he had only heard it once before he knew it instantly.
“I’m sorry”, she said, “so very sorry.”
“I used you. I lied to you.”
“If you had told me the truth I couldn’t have believed you.”
“I know, but it doesn’t make it right.”
“I love you. I never thought I would be able to feel that way again. You more than paid me back.”
“It was always there inside you. I could see it from the first. It was in your journal. In your words.”
“Thank you for showing me.”
“No, I have to thank you.”
“Why? What for?”
“I had missed out on so much. I had never known a love or a lover before I died. I found out what both those things mean from you. Without that I couldn’t leave.”
“Yes, this is my farewell. Your gift has freed me to go.”
The line was dead in his hand. As peace had finally called to Gail Ritter, sleep called to Phil. It was dreamless and dark and warm.
In the darkness the phone rang again.
“Phil, its Bennie. We have an helicopter down in the Mississippi.”
“Meet the boat at Bald Eagle’s Landing.”
“I’ll be there.” Phil was running even as he threw down the cordless phone. Somehow his gear was ready, all assembled, and tank charged, by the garage door, like he had never packed it away. He hit the road, wet suit on, and rig ready to don.